Sunak’s Broken Britain
This article was originally published in the YDS 2022 Year in Review Special Edition. Read it and other articles here.
Leaping from crisis to crisis, the revolving door of British prime ministers have neglected the UK’s strategic foreign policy, instead focussing on putting out fires and controversies. Rishi Sunak must first address the immediate domestic concerns before committing to ‘Global Britain’ or risk projecting a broken and disunited kingdom instead of a return to British grandeur.
With Rishi Sunak having entered Number 10, the United Kingdom is witnessing its fifth Conservative prime minister in six years across four general elections. The premierships of David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss were all mired in controversy and crisis. The recent political chaos undermines the United Kingdom’s pursuance of any long-term foreign policy strategy.
Now Sunak has the weighty responsibility to steer HMS Britannia along its charted course, as the beleaguered country attempts to shake off the anchoring effects of the pandemic, Brexit, and Ukraine, all on top of a domestic cost-of-living crisis. Amid the headwinds, Sunak risks presenting a broken instead of a Global Britain back on the world stage.
A reactionary Britain
Since the 2016 Brexit Referendum, UK politics has entered into a period of chaos and uncertainty. From May to Johnson, different views over Brexit have amplified divisions, not only in the Tory Party, but also in the greater British polity. The revolving door of British PMs is merely a symptom of the nation’s confusion as it struggles to follow a straight path forward in a post-Brexit world.
Exiting the European Union, Johnson’s newly liberated Britain was “unshackled from the corpse that is the EU,” as one pro-Brexiteer put it. The UK was free to seek out alliances, manage individual EU relations, and strike new and beneficial trade deals across the world; but this did not pan out as envisioned.
The UK has been gravely impacted by the pandemic, facing both economic and social challenges. Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have neutered any remaining interventionism lingering from the Tony Blair years. Former US President Donald Trump and his brand of American isolationism and protectionism upended the Atlantic pillar of security the UK dearly relied on. Britain has also been caught off guard with Russia’s opportunistic aggression in Ukraine. Rounding up these pressing issues is the British indecisiveness over whether China’s role is one of a security threat or an economic lifeline. Overall since 2016, whoever occupied the tenancy at Whitehall has been in damage control addressing the above mentioned issues – acting in damage control mode – rather than strategising and formulating a long-term foreign policy direction in this increasingly turbulent world.
That is not to say the prime minister of the day fully neglected foreign policy. There have been shifts in this sphere, with Britain concluding the controversial trade negotiations with Australia and Japan. The UK has also demonstrated its willingness to engage in the Indo-Pacific region’s security further through the AUKUS pact and the recent UK-Japan Reciprocal Access Agreement with Tokyo. But these agreements and negotiations clearly have taken a back seat compared to acute domestic and economic issues.
A Global Britain
As part of the post-Brexit “freedom”, the UK is no longer tethered to Brussels’ foreign policy. In March 2021, London released its ‘Integrated Review’ of its engagement with the world – particularly addressing the Indo-Pacific – titled ‘Global Britain’. This vision was first championed by many political Brexit supporters as a shibboleth, but has since morphed to involve a cosmopolitan, outward-looking UK aiming to re-engage with the world. Global Britain encompasses heavy investment in several notable sectors, including the UK’s armed forces, trade, political and diplomatic ties, and science and technology fields.
Despite its heavy marketing, constant homages by political figures, and a phalanx of advertisements, the vision presented is vague and imprecise. Apart from the name, there is nothing concretely global about Global Britain. In practice, Global Britain ostensibly involves the UK navigating the small gaps between larger state actors, rather than exercising its touted self-determination in driving global events.
Icebergs in the way
Just as his predecessors were engulfed by internal challenges, Sunak is now presented with a domestic economic crisis courtesy of Truss. Regarding foreign policy, his office has noted that the Prime Minister’s immediate focus is to “call out Putin’s regime” while collaborating with partners by “cementing relationships”. If this is all Sunak is presenting in foreign policy, he risks repeating a reactionary approach adopted by previous Conservative PMs, hindering the pursuit of Global Britain.
As ambitious as Global Britain seems, before Sunak can deliver his version of the vision and (re)offer British leadership on the world stage, he first needs to restore economic stability back home. A Downing Street official aptly notes, “the only good foreign policy that is made, is off the back of a strong economic footing.”
Assuming the PM is able to rein in Britain’s economic issues, he faces more acute and practical icebergs in implementing Global Britain – he does not have much cash to splash. Global Britain hinges on the state of the UK’s finances, and currently, it is severely constrained. David Lawrence at the Chatham House appropriately summarises, “whether it’s the Indo-Pacific tilt, making Britain into a science and technology superpower, of funding defence and diplomacy – whatever it is you want to do in terms of global ambitions, you need to be able to pay for it…And it’s a lot harder if you’ve got a weak economy.”
Sunak’s HMS Britannia into oblivion
The past Conservative premierships under May, Johnson, and Truss have all acted similar to transitional governments, focussed on addressing immediate concerns instead of realising long-term strategic goals. Sunak has an opportunity between now and the next general election to cement his credibility, the nation’s credibility, and chart his own course for HMS Britannia. Should the new Prime Minister fail in navigating between the icebergs of internal damage control and political infighting, the UK’s Global Britain will remain an unrealised dream and a mere propaganda tagline of Brexit supporters.
Samuel Ng is currently in his final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of International Business at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is also a Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar for Taiwan, previously studying at the National Chengchi University having undertaken units in Taiwanese international relations, diplomacy, and political history.